Sunday, November 7, 2010

A little Gilbert and Sullivan

Some of you know that one of my major hobbies is collecting music. I collect just about all genres if I like it, and I like a lot.

This post is not really about the lives or professional careers of Gilbert and Sullivan, except to say briefly, for those who may not be familiar with the names, that they wrote words and music for operettas (short, light, operas) and that they were mostly active in the last quarter of the 19th century, in Great Britain.

These men collaborated on 14 comic operas, geared for Victorian audiences. Of these 14, three were more popular than the others: H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado.

Their business was parody. For the most part, their operettas poked fun at the Victorian establishment, the hypocrisy, the incompetence at high levels. Their stuff is fun to watch. It is very witty and it goes by really fast; you can see the same one several times and pick up more and more each time that you didn't get the first time.

My personal favorite Gilbert and Sullivan happens to be The Pirates of Penzance. I won't go into a summary of the "plot" because if you know Gilbert and Sullivan then you already know what it is about. What I want to talk about is a particular performance of Pirates. Bear in mind that if one sings opera, even if that opera is light comedy, one must have the kind of voice that can sing opera. Well, I guess that is obvious.

Linda Ronstadt is of Hispanic origins through her father, though there was (obviously) a German ancestor somewhere in his family history. His ancestors were wagon makers and came up from Mexico to Arizona way back when. Her mother is of German, Dutch and English heritage. Linda was born in Tucson, Arizona. Her father was a successful machinery merchant.

Linda Ronstadt came onto the music scene in late 1967. The name of the group was The Stone Poneys; the name of the hit song was "Different Drum" and in small print on the record under Stone Poneys were the words, "Featuring Linda Ronstadt." To my knowledge, that was the only record she cut with The Stone Poneys. She has been a single artist since then, though she has appeared on many collaboration albums with other singing stars. Since 1967 she has become an international star in several musical genres, famous enough that you don't need me to tell you who she is. She sings rock and roll and Folk Rock, became a big-time Country singer, and has released albums in Jazz, Latin American (Canciones de mi Padre), Rhythm and Blues, Big Band, Pop, and one more. Well, you know.

I can't tell you how many theater companies and college drama classes have staged The Pirates of Penzance over the past 130 years, much less how many millions of people have fallen in love with the songs and mouth the words along with the singers, much like the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Except that The Pirates of Penzance was written in 1880.

There really is a town called Penzance in England. It's in Cornwall. I don't think there are any pirates there, though.

In my music collecting, I came accross a video tape of an old TV special of a live production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance. As I say, I like Pirates, so I watched the tape. A live performance, as I say, but both the male and female leads were rock and country singers, not opera people. That disappointed me, I must say, knowing they were going to screw up one of my favorite operettas.

Linda Ronstadt was cast in the female lead (Mabel, one of the Modern Major General's many daughters.) The Pirate King is sung by Kevin Kline, a comedic actor, but with a great singing voice, and Little Ruthie is sung by Angela Landsbury (Murder, She Wrote), who, of course, has a professionally trained voice as well. The other principal singers and chorus are just dandy. But Linda Ronstadt can't sing opera, right? No way. Well, I watched the TV production of Pirates anyway, and let me be frank: when Linda applied her pipes to Gilbert and Sullivan, she just blew me away!

Go, ye heroes, go to glory,

Though you die in combat gory,

Ye shall live in song and story.

Go to immortality!

Go to death, and go to slaughter;

Die, and every Cornish daughter

With her tears your grave shall water.

Go, ye heroes, go and die!

See if you agree with me that the lass can sing opera too. At least Gilbert and Sullivan. Let me know what you thought. Were you as surprised as I?

Note: this was posted on BritishSpeak blog because Gilbert and Sullivan were British.


  1. These two collaborated for a while but actually did not like another very much!

  2. I read or heard or otherwise learned that pop and rock singers do quite often have classical training. I didn't read or hear or otherwise learn why. Or I've forgotten.

  3. I don't think it was made for TV and it's available on DVD. I can't remember if I own it, but I've seen that version probably half a dozen times if not more. I'm sure my father had it on laser disc. My sister (shakespeare, who has a very good high soprano) and I would sing the whole thing based on this version.

    Rondstadt sings it very well and, in fact, all the singing voices are, in my opinion, quite good. I'm not a fan of Angela Lansberry and this is probably my favorite of her singing parts.

    I have a soft spot of baritone voices and loved Kevin Kline in this. I'm not as fond of tenors, but thought Rex Smith also did a fine job.

  4. I am not a Savoyard, but still a fan of G&S.

    I was pleasantly surprised at Lida Ronstadt's performance. I did not expect her to be that good.

    I'm going to put "Pirates" on my Netflix list. I haven't seen it in years. It's been one of my favorites since I saw the D'Oyly Carte company perfom it in NYC many years ago.

  5. Gilbert and Sullivan?

    Excuse me whils I yawn a few times.



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